Betty Wilkenfeld

June 4, 2018 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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The passing of Betty Wilkenfeld z”l marks a sad loss for the Australian Jewish community.

A tribute from Anton Block, President, and Peter Wertheim, co-CEO, Executive Council of Australian Jewry:

Betty Wilkenfeld and her family

Born Bracha Bloch, she arrived in Australia from her native Varniai, in Lithuania, in 1933 when she was 2⅟2 years old, with her mother, Zise, and two brothers renamed Bernard and Bill. Escaping the rising tide of antisemitism that was sweeping through Europe, they were reunited with Betty’s father, Jacob, who had arrived in Australia sometime earlier.

Jacob had founded the Bloch family ballet business in Australia as a sole trader, and he had started specialising in hand-made pointe ballet shoes. The business quickly acquired an excellent reputation and supplied ballet shoes to some of the most renowned male and female dancers of the visiting Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and later the Borovansky Ballet.

Betty was the first Jewish girl in NSW to complete Hebrew for her Leaving Certificate, the forerunner of the HSC.

Betty married her German-born husband, Gerhard (better known as Gershon) Wilkenfeld, in 1953.  Gershon had escaped the Nazis by fleeing to Palestine aged 13, but his mother, brother and sister were sent to a camp in Poland. He never saw them again. His father, a refugee, had been interned as an enemy alien and deported to Australia, where Gershon was eventually reunited with him.

After initially teaching for the NSW Board of Jewish Education and at Sydney’s Moriah College, Betty joined her father and brother Bill in the business, together with Gershon.  Betty was described as “a one-woman marketing machine”. She was universally respected as a “straight shooter”, plain-spoken and demanding high standards of herself and others.

Betty’s dynamism and energy, together with Gershon’s systematic and orderly approach to organisation, propelled the business into a national enterprise as it underwent a period of enormous growth and success.   It has since become one of the world’s top three ballet clothing companies, supplying ballet shoes to the Australian Ballet, as well as to various stars of the Paris Opera Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet and the National Ballet of China.

Betty and Gershon had three children, David, Judy and Simon.

Betty’s energy was extraordinary.  As if she was not busy enough as a businesswoman, mother and wife, Betty was passionate about the Jewish community and Israel.  Her communal involvement included roles on the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, at the Sydney Jewish Museum and as President of WIZO NSW.

In her later years, she enjoyed an active social life and spending time with family, including grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

With Betty Wilkenfeld’s passing, we are losing another of the talented and dynamic Jews who arrived in Australia from Europe from the 1930s onwards.  They revitalised Jewish life in our community and made an extraordinary contribution to Australia’s economy, culture and the arts.  Each of them was a unique character, remarkable and unforgettable, and an inspiration to future generations.


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